Wednesday 30 January 2008

The Lawrence Inquiry's Missed Opportunities

Ten Years On: The Missed Opportunity of the Lawrence Inquiry

Over a decade ago, I recall having a conversation about the benefit of public inquiries with Phil Scraton, the author of Hillsborough: The Truth and now Professor of Criminology at Queen's University Belfast. He said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that the problem with demanding an independent public inquiry is that the government might actually agree. Ministers can then set an inquiry's remit in a way that avoids the most controversial issues and then spend the next decade pointing out the generosity of its offer, as though this has a greater significance than the decisions that an inquiry might eventually reach. Public inquiries are therefore, at best, brief windows of opportunity to push for change before the issue under investigation slips from the public consciousness.

So it has proved with the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, whose first public hearings began ten years ago this March. Although a particularly controversial issue was left outside of its remit, the Inquiry Panel nevertheless highlighted "one area of complaint which was universal" - the issue of stop and search by the police. The Inquiry Report said (section 45.8), "nobody in the minority ethnic communities believes that the complex arguments which are sometimes used to explain the figures as to stop and search are valid... the perception and experience of the minority communities that discrimination is a major element in the stop and search problem is correct."

In the 'window of opportunity' after the publication in 1999 of the Inquiry Report, the government's decision to accept all the Inquiry's guidance, including Recommendation 61's call for recording of all "stops" and "stops and searches" made under any legislation (not just the Police and Criminal Evidence Act) including so called "voluntary" stops, therefore broke new ground.

Amidst otherwise tame recommendations, the idea of forcing police officers to justify their reasons for stopping and searching black people was as important as the removal of the ability to make stops without reasonable suspicion, the hated 'sus' laws that had provided the trigger for the Brixton, Toxteth and St Pauls' uprisings in 1980 and 1981. But windows of opportunities close and the frenzied atmosphere of the Lawrence Inquiry, much of which I attended as an activist for Newham Monitoring Project, dissipated as the focus shifted from the police onto local government.

Then came the 'war on terror'. Section 43 of the Terrorism Act 2000 gave the police the power to stop and search someone whom is reasonably suspected to be a terrorist, whilst section 44 allowed stop and search for articles that could be used in terrorism, with no reasonable suspicion required, in a defined area. Although the whole of London is an authorised area all the time, with ministers renewing the power every 28 days, neither of these most commonly used powers has made the slightest difference in tackling terrorism and no stops have resulted in a conviction for terrorist offences. But section 44 has been used to target Muslim communities, to expel an troublesome pensioner from a Labour Party conference and, in 2005, to hold a Scot for four hours for walking on a cycle path.

Now the government plans to take the final steps to unravel the progress made by the Lawrence Inquiry. Today's Prime Minister's Questions involved a tussle between Brown and Cameron over ending the recording of stop and search and, worse still, leaping back to before the 1981 Scarman Inquiry by reintroducing a variant of 'sus'. It seems that a government-commissioned report - written by a police officer, of course - will next week suggest handing police the power to search people without giving a reason. In response, Cameron has called for an end of the Lawrence Inquiry's recommendation to record stops and said that black and Asian communities "have to accept more stop and search... [as] necessary to combat the growth of violent crime in those communities." He also suggests the time has come to stop complaining - that there has been a "big change in policing since the 1980s" that means the police "understand concerns about racism, concerns about targeting particular groups".

Which rather begs the question, why do government figures still show that black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, while Asians are almost twice as likely? And does anyone have any greater belief than they did back on 1998 about the validity of the 'complex arguments' that will be used to explain the figures?

Clearly, the time has come to keep complaining - and to accept that the Lawrence Inquiry basically failed. For a period, it pushed the institution of the police into suppressing its primarily stereotypical view of black communities. But that period is now over and, whilst policing in Britain certainly is different than it was in the 1980s, new powers make it easier to slip back into ingrained habits - habits whose impact will be felt mainly by Muslims, young black men and working class communities.

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